The race for one school board seat in Rockingham County is a microcosm of the fierce debates over masking mandates, transgender student rights and other issues. The candidates held a debate Wednesday night, and WMRA's Randi B. Hagi was there.
The Spotswood High School Youth in Government Club held the debate for the candidates running for the district three seat on the Rockingham County School Board. It featured questions generated by Spotswood students, and were a mixture of current hot-button issues -- such as candidates' takes on COVID regulations -- and more mundane concerns, including the school day schedule. The candidates running in district three, which includes areas of the county east and south of Harrisonburg, are Lori Mier, Matt Cross, and Hilary Irons.
One of the first questions was about mask mandates. Irons said it took her a while to come around to wearing them, however --
HILARY IRONS: I still live in a world where the doctors know more than me. They went to years and years of schooling. Just because I can google information doesn't mean I have the background knowledge to evaluate complicated medical information properly.
Mier supports wearing masks.
LORI MIER: I support any COVID-safety guidelines that are put to us by the state for the safety of everyone in this community, including our children. And I do support vaccines. And my son will be getting the vaccine when it is available to him.
Cross said he'd make them optional.
MATT CROSS: I believe that the community and those who are watching online tonight are tired of coming to school board meetings and being lectured by those in charge, that they know better than what parents do for their children's health.
Throughout the evening, Mier's rhetoric centered on antiracism and equity issues; Cross focused on parents' rights and his background as a school resource officer; and Irons billed herself as an experienced educator with a common-sense approach. All three have children in the county schools.
Discourse did stay civil Wednesday evening, in contrast to some of the arguments that have broken out on social media, particularly between Cross and local residents on his Facebook posts earlier in the campaign. But this exchange between Irons and Cross elicited reaction from the audience:
IRONS: My child's right to have peanuts is not more important than a child's right to health and safety around peanuts. So I think the same thing for masks -- we need to have common sense policies that care for our neighbors well, even as we disagree. [smattering of applause]
CROSS: That's placating to the middle of the road. And that's --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: No it's not!
CROSS: Yes it is. It's placating to the middle of the road, and what we're doing is we're taking away people's constitutional rights to be able to do what's best for them and for their children.
Other questions started out mundane --
STUDENT MODERATOR: How do you plan to solve the overcrowding issues within the county without dislocating residents of legacy for residents of newer developments as we did with the residents of Grottoes?
But then veered back into contentious territory.
IRONS: To address what Lori said, there is a socioeconomic divide between students. … Any teacher can tell you a student that comes from a situation of means has more vocabulary, has more background knowledge, has more skills to succeed. That automatically puts them on a track to be different, to excel. Kids that come from a different background, and this definitely correlates to race as well, they don't have the same skills. They have less vocabulary, they have less access. And so as we grow, as the kids through elementary school grow, they have an exponential difference in their education level that needs to be addressed …
MIER: Hilary, you just said that non-white children do not have the same skills. That is a lie. All children are brilliant.
There were only about 40 people in attendance, but they did interject a few times.
CROSS: It's sad when we live in a generation where everything's about race now. Everything's about race. Excuse me, everything's about race anymore and it shouldn't be about race. It should be about our character. We're getting away from what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said about the character --
[groans from the audience]
CROSS: Absolutely did. I absolutely went there because I've never been called a racist until I started doing this. And no one in my life has ever called me a racist except now, from people from JMU and other places like that.
Cherith Bradshaw, secretary for the Youth in Government Club, was pleased with how the night went.
CHERITH BRADSHAW: I think the candidates did a great job of responding, and it's nice to see public discourse like this and have it in a reasonable manner, without it getting heated … I kind of expected the candidates to be reasonable and be civil with their discussions.
Which narratives and priorities will win out in District 3, and in races across the state, will be decided on November 2nd. For WMRA News, I'm Randi B. Hagi.